Uninspired

Long time no blog, eh? (We are experiencing Canadian weather today in Baltimore, so I’m speaking Canadian.) I’ve been helping to create a new consumer health magazine and writing and editing and preparing for the Editors Forum and the time does get away from me, yes it does.

How have you been?

Anyway, may I take a few minutes to try to discourage you from publishing inspirational stories?

Yeah, the bitch is back.

I am not arguing against fine, skillfully wrought stories that not only engage readers but  inspire them to follow someone’s example, or go read somebody’s book, or hand over a credit card number the next time one of those perky student volunteers calls during campus pledge week. We write about a lot of people whose qualities and accomplishments have the capacity to inspire. We do it all the time, I do it all the time, there’s no reason to stop.

What I would be happy never to come across again are those alumni magazine stories that were assigned and written with the expressed purpose of being inspirational. You know the ones. The cute, smart, idealistic 19-year-old sophomore who has known since age 9 that she wanted only to grow up and make a difference. The alumnus with the 8,000-square-foot house who gave some of his precious time in order to share his insights about the power of giving. The recent graduate who is following her passion to be Matt Lauer’s third assistant intern and owes so very much to Faber College.

The problem with these stories is not the earnest intent with which they are published. The problem is they are always lousy stories. And they are lousy stories because they are invariably packed with cliches and written to a cliched template: the cliched exemplary bits of the life story stripped of all human complexity and contradiction, the statements that always seem to come from the Quote-a-Matic about overcoming adversity and following your dreams and the value of teachers, the smiling photograph, the testimonial from friend or kin or elder or teacher. You could run 30 of them by me and I wouldn’t remember one because they are so formulaic and so simple-minded in their notion of what a reader ought to find inspiring.

The root of the problem: This is not storytelling. This is marketing.

If there is a great story to write about someone who, incidentally, is an inspiring figure, then by all means write it. But write it because it’s a great story, not because you or a boss thinks it may be useful for the university’s branding or image building or impending capital campaign. You can’t inspire anyone if they don’t read your story, and I suspect few of these off-the-shelf inspirational cliches ever get read.

One additional problem with aiming to inspire is none of us can predict what will inspire another individual. We don’t even know what’s going to inspire ourselves. It’s a murky, unpredictable thing, this inspiration business. Don’t even try. Just renounce cliches and tell great stories. Because you will accomplish nothing if you don’t inspire a reader to read all the way to the end.

4 comments

  1. Allison Duncan

    Thanks for your insights, Dale. Your last paragraph is especially striking—stories that try to be inspirational end up feeling emotionally manipulative. We can’t control the effect we have on our readers, but we can do our best to draw them in and help them remember a story.

  2. dan cattau

    Very good piece. The basic problem is alumni magazines sometimes confuse stories with information. The reason why these “stories” fail is that they are not stories at all, but rather information (a bequest, an honor, a White House internship etc.). The other problem is that it requires legwork to get at the better stories. A TV reporter friend once defined a story as “anything that happens within 15 feet of the van.” This link to a paysite Chronicle piece by Stephen Lewis (former Carleton president) shows the kind of real stories out there that might not be defined by “success.”

    https://chronicle.com/article/Why-Colleges-Should-Put-a-New/12384/

  3. Grace

    There are two measures of success in my daily reality: internal and external. Internal successes are stories well-told . . . the stories that leave me with something I didn’t know . . . the ones that take me somewhere I never would have gone on my own. And then there are the external successes: the ones that push a program or make our leadership happy. I keep the external successes coming because THAT is the requirement of my job. The internal successes keep me motivated, but the external ones put food on the table and a roof over my head. So, yes, critique/criticize the marketing stories, but understand that for some of us, that is what is required, requested, and expected.

  4. Cameron Pegg

    The penultimate para nails it – a corporate message does not a story make.

    I also think the “stories vs information” taxonomy is accurate and instructive.

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